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John Busby (1765–1857)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

John Busby (1765-1857), surveyor and civil engineer, was born on 24 March 1765 at Alnwick, Northumberland, England, eldest son of George Busby, a miner and coalmaster of Stamford, and his wife Margaret, née Wilson, of Dunstan, Northumberland. He followed his father's occupation and at 19 was manager of a coal-mine. For several years he was employed as a mineral surveyor and engineer in England, Scotland and Ireland. He made water and mineral surveys of several counties in Scotland, provided a water supply for Leith Fort, and was engaged on such public works as the Caledonian Canal, Stirling Castle, Loch Ryan, and the new botanical gardens at Edinburgh. He received two of the Highland Society's highest premiums, one for inventing machinery for ascertaining the nature of rock strata by boring, the other for a method of sinking through quicksands, clay and gravel beds. In 1810 he was employed on the Irish estate of the marquess of Downshire.

Busby claimed association in these various activities with such eminent engineers as Stevenson, Telford and Rennie, and produced six impressive testimonials when, in 1821, he applied to the Colonial Office for employment in New South Wales. Recommended also by John Thomas Bigge he was appointed in March 1823 to take up duty 'in the management of the Coal Mines, in supplying the Town of Sydney with water, and in objects of a similar nature'.

With free passages, Busby with his wife and family sailed from Leith in the Triton and arrived at Port Jackson in February 1824. The eldest son, George, followed later, after completing his medical studies in Edinburgh. On the voyage the ship stayed for some weeks at Hobart Town, where Busby made 'a survey for water and coals'. In February 1825 he was asked to explore Van Diemen's Land 'so far as Minerals and Geology are concerned, more especially with respect to Coals and Iron', but he went instead to New Zealand to refloat the government brig Elizabeth Henrietta aground at Goulburn Island; for this task he was given £300. In 1826 he went to report on coal deposits near Newcastle for the Australian Agricultural Co.

His most important work was the construction of Sydney's first regular water supply. He began the survey soon after arrival and his first report in June 1825 envisaged a supply pumped through iron pipes from the Lachlan Swamps (Centennial Park) to a reservoir in Hyde Park. This plan, to cost about £12,000, was apparently approved, but in January 1826 he submitted a second report which proposed the driving of a mine or bore for the whole distance of more than two miles (3.2 km); although this work would cost about £20,000, he believed it would ultimately prove cheaper in running costs. Surveyor General John Oxley and William Dumaresq recommended the second scheme, and tunnelling commenced in September 1827. Busby declared that the project could be completed in three years, and as his initial engagement had expired he was engaged at a salary of £500, with his son Alexander as his assistant at £100. In October 1828 Busby's new salary was confirmed by the Colonial Office, but he was refused an assistant. In May 1831 he engaged his youngest son William to help him without government pay.

The slow progress of the scheme frequently aroused public criticism; the Colonial Office demanded a report on the project in 1832. Next year a committee of the Legislative Council inquired into it, and with no censure of Busby recommended that the remaining work on the tunnel be contracted out. Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, however, attributed the delay to poor supervision of the convict workers and in 1834 reported to London that the proper direction of such unwilling labour was perhaps 'a duty incompatible with Mr Busby's age and infirmities', and that he had little confidence in Busby's professional skill. Accordingly he appointed William Busby as overseer to the work at £200 a year, the sum to be deducted from his father's salary.

Busby protested to London at this treatment, and at his own request continued to superintend the work without salary until his claim was decided. The Colonial Office approved Bourke's action, but in 1836 Busby's petition for an investigation was supported by a large number of Sydney residents. Before another committee of the Legislative Council in 1837, the year in which the scheme was completed, Busby claimed that if he had taken a contract for the project and had at his disposal proper equipment, skilled labourers and proper overseers, he could have finished it in half the time. Major George Barney, whose professional opinion Bourke respected, testified that the work was 'very fairly done', considering the means available to Busby. The committee recommended that £1000 be paid to Busby as a gratuity in addition to his salary arrears.

He retired at 72 to his 2000-acre (809 ha) property, Kirkton, between Branxton and Singleton, which had been granted in 1835. In 1828 he had received a small grant on the Nepean River near Emu Plains and eight acres (3.2 ha) at Woolloomooloo Cove for a town house. He died at his Hunter River estate on 10 May 1857.

At Haddington near Edinburgh in 1798 he had married Sarah, only daughter of James Kennedy of Culzean, Ayrshire. She died in 1842. Of their eight children, five sons and one daughter survived infancy. The eldest son, George (1798-1870), was a surgeon at Bathurst for many years; James, the second son, was British Resident in New Zealand in 1833-40. Two sons entered the New South Wales legislature: Alexander (1808-1873) was a member of the Legislative Council in 1856-58, and William (1813-1887) from 1867 until his death.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 11-17, 19, 26, series 3, vol 6
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1824-34, 2, p 138-40, 1837, 2, p 678-91
  • Busby papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

  • death notice, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 23 May 1857, p 3

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Busby, John (1765–1857)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Busby, n.d.

John Busby, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 21702

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1765
Alnwick, Northumberland, England


10 May, 1857 (aged 92)
Belford, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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